For the past few months I’ve been closing in on the end of a complete draft for my latest novel. As of yesterday, it hit the ‘tipping point’. There’s less than fifty pages left in this sucker, probably closer to thirty, and that means I am probably going to bury myself in it and finish it in one go.
All of my novels hit this point towards the end. Traditionally, it means that I cocoon myself in my office and write non-stop for a couple days, forgetting sometimes even to eat, until the thing is finished. I’ve completed four novels to date, and its happened with each of them when I get to the end of the initial draft. I’ve heard this happens for other authors, too.
While I can’t speak for anybody but myself, part of why I believe this happens is because writing a novel is a lot like solving a labyrinth. You know, ultimately, where you want the whole thing to go, but getting there often involves twists and turns you didn’t anticipate, dead ends that turn you around, and the occasional spot where you find yourself going around in circles. Then, though, in a fit of inspiration, you see the whole damned thing – the path from where you are now to the finish line in perfect clarity. At that point you are no longer lost. You’ve got it. It just remains to write it all down. The feeling is exhilarating, and you feel an almost physical compulsion to finish it, no matter how long it takes.
Of course, this tipping point has coincided with the end of the fall semester, which means stacks of papers to grade as well. That complicates things somewhat, but I should be very surprised if I don’t have Lych done by Christmas, one way or another. So, what I’m saying here is that my blog will be neglected, one way or another, for the next 2-3 weeks or so. Sorry. I’m sure the internet has other ways to distract you, anyway.
Then, of course, I’m going to have to face the infinitely harder task of revising the novel I have now, which is nothing like a labyrinth and everything like a CIA interrogation at a black site. Anyway, wish me luck, and I’ll see you all on the other side!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, too!
If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.
So, what to do?
Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.
The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.
As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.
But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?
This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ’true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.
Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.
Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:
…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.
That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*
On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.
When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.
That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.
I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”
The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?
I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really - and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.
At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?
I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.
Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.
I’m midway through Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, and the more I read, the more I grow to appreciate Lynch’s command of vulgarity. For those of you who haven’t read any Lynch, his Gentlemen Bastards series is, for my money, one of the if not the best fantasy published in the past ten years or so. It is, essentially, the Sting/Ocean’s Eleven, but set in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Mediterranean world during the Italian Renaissance. Good stuff.
As his many of Lynch’s characters are thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals of the lowest sort, they swear a lot. But as these are so often very clever thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals, they swear artfully. The words ’fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘asshole’ are masterfully crafted into some of the more colorful and amusing metaphors I’ve encountered. My recent favorite is this phrase, spoken of a boorish, arrogant, stupid ass of man who has ruined the lives of numerous people:
I wouldn’t shit on his head to give him shade from the sun.
Just bask in the layers of that metaphor, would you? Let it wash over you. I’m telling you, for all its vulgarity, it’s beautiful. When I initially read The Lies of Locke Lamora (the first book in Lynch’s series), I felt as though the profanity was a bit overpowering. He was overplaying the card, I felt, and going from clever and edgy to merely crass. Now, though, either Lynch is growing on me or his has mellowed and tempered his f-bombs into something more than simply shocking. They are evocative epithets, laced with emotion, that give the reader a front-row seat to the seething tempers of Jean and the outrageous frustrations of Locke, as well as all the other raw moments of all the other colorful characters inhabiting Lynch’s dirty world of crime and skullduggery.
There is something to be said for swearing. The proper curse at the proper moment is the naval broadside of the spoken word. It has power and depth and feeling. If used cleverly, the word ‘fuck’ can paint pictures lesser words would have to work very hard to match. In Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, the poet Martin Silenus delivers his part of the narrative with a profanity-laced tirade against the world. The first lines read:
First came the Word; then came the fucking word processor; then came the fucking thought processor; then came the death of literature. And so it goes.
There’s a rhythm there – a poetry, if you will – I find important to the timbre of Silenus’s voice. There’s a kind of electricity in it, and not because I’m ‘shocked’ by bawdy language – I’m from Boston, so trust me when I say I’m used to it. Rather it is because the word ‘fuck’ and its weaker cousins is a word that does not hide any of its meaning. It is bare and raw; it cannot be misunderstood.
Now, am I saying that science fiction or fantasy stories/novels don’t swear enough? Well, sort of. I do feel that the genre, as a whole, is needlessly bowdlerized to be ‘suitable for children’, even though so much of the genre is not intended for the tender ears of true children, but rather for the teenagers and adults that make up the majority of the audience. If you don’t think those folks are acquainted with a few swears, then I have some shocking news for you.
Of course, profanity just for the purpose of being profane isn’t a good idea – there is no call to be offensive needlessly. Profanity needs to serve an artistic purpose, as absurd as that sounds. Also, there will always be people who will jump all over you for even the mildest transgressions (I’ve been scolded for saying ‘goddamn’ before, which I find pretty hilarious, honestly). Of course, folks whose ears are that tender are going to be offended by a wide swathe of things and trying to please them is like trying to get that guy who only likes cheese pizza to try a slice of sausage and pepper – it’s a waste of your time and, ultimately, it’s their loss.
In the end, cutting out a whole segment of language that is used and used often by lots and lots of people is sort of like tying one hand behind your back. I say learn to use the hand, get it to work for you, and there is some real magic that can happen there.
When I was in kindergarten, I got on the wrong school bus home (there were two options – Bus 4 and Bus 6). Normal, right? Okay, when I was 11 years old, I attended a soccer camp. I got a ride there with one of the coaches. After the first day, I saw a lot of kids in my group going home on a school bus, so I got on the school bus to go home. I wound up in a town about 30 miles away from my house. I sat in some other coach’s living room while he called my mother while his kids – all, weirdly enough, wearing baseball uniforms – stared at me. He drove me to the parking lot of a police station halfway between my house and his own, where my Mom was waiting to pick me up.
“What were you thinking?” My mom finally said after a lot of hugging. “You didn’t even get on a bus at all this morning? Where was your head?”
I said I didn’t know. I just saw everybody getting on the bus and went along for the ride. I had not bothered to record the whys or hows for returning home that morning. It just didn’t seem that important to me at the time.
I spend a significant portion of my time not on planet Earth. I am always (ALWAYS) plotting stories and novels in my head. Often I’m plotting stories and novels I’m never, ever going to write (because who has the time? I’ve got enough projects lined up as it is). While I am writing this now, I am thinking of a story involving hyper-intelligent jellyfish who only communicate with each other in dreams. As of this moment, it has no plot, no characters, just colorful jellyfish floating in space, dreaming to each other and to the (hapless?) explorers who happen to discover them. The other day, while sitting in a faculty meeting, I developed an alien alphabet/language that uses quadrilateral pictograms. I found (to my surprise) that this species has the same word for ‘space’ as it has for ‘sea’. I’m still pondering what that means. It has displaced the jellyfish for the nonce.
And then I’ve still got that story about the guy hunted by aliens on a tidally-locked planet (no rotation) who is reduced to trying to determine his longitude by the size of a cat’s irises. It has a title: “Cat-Nav.”
In any event, this makes it difficult for some people to deal with me. Most notably my parents, but my kids and my wife and some of my friends, too. The other day, my eldest daughter (3 years) was pushing my youngest daughter (6 months) in one of those little walkers with the wheels around my parents’ house while both of them were giggling uncontrollably. It was extremely adorable, but I only paid attention for about half of it because I was deep in the middle of pondering the economic implications of a marsupial aliens species that reproduces in litters of 4-6 just about every 8 months in an interstellar society. Turns out its pretty grim.
I understand the real world is an important place (a stupid thing to say, but there you go). It contains all the things I legitimately love the most – my family, my home, my friends. For whatever reason, though, I can’t stay there all the time. I’m always leaving, going on journeys to places non-existent. There are perhaps a thousand answers why, and the most comforting ones come in some version of the statement ‘this dream has meaning for the waking world.’ Maybe it does. There’s a lot of work between me and finding out if that’s true, and I’m doing it. It’s hard, though – I need to go, but I want to stay. I’m here, but I’m also not. I work for the balance – the magical point where I can be in both places somehow. I haven’t found that yet. In all my travels, that is the destination I have yet to find.
Ben Affleck is going to be Batman. Get over it.
No, seriously, just shut up. You’re being a giant child. Seeing as there is presumably nobody pointing a loaded weapon to your head and forcing you to go see this movie, you have two adult options here:
- Go and see the movie and see what happens. Life goes on.
- Don’t go and see the movie. Life goes on.
It’s not like Ben Affleck gassed kidnapped children in an abandoned coal mine. Calm the fuck down.
There is a bizarre cultural weight given certain fictional universes by the assembled masses of geekdom. A casting choice goes awry or so-and-so does such-and-such to Super-Guy’s underroos, and somewhere somebody is throwing an almighty hissy fit. I’ve done it, admittedly – I’ve done it here on this blog. I like to think my major objection in these instances isn’t to the choices made, though, as it is to the execution of said choices. If you want Gotham City to go into a kind of fascist lockdown, then fine. You need to have it make even a remote amount of sense, though. I object less to the ‘bat nipple’ than I do to the fact that Batman and Robin was a stupidly executed plot with poorly drawn characters and awkward performances. I also didn’t write the studio any hate mail.
When people start ranting about things like this, I like to ask them a question: What would you prefer? They inevitably produce a laundry list of things they would do differently – different actors, different costumes, different plots. Fine. The follow-up question is this:
Do you honestly think people wouldn’t get pissed at you, too?
If you grew up to become a hardcore geek, you also developed deep attachments to various characters. You loved Captain Kirk. You dreamed about fighting alongside Aragorn. On the playground, you were Han Solo’s niece with a blaster and a knack for fixing droids. I get it – I grew up the same way. These characters and these things stuck with you for a long, long time. They were folded into your personality, into your sense of self. I think this happens to everybody, geek or not. There was the kid who grew up wanting to be Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan, the guy who carried a copy of David Copperfield all through college, the girl who couldn’t stop watching My So-Called Life – all of these people have wrapped their self-image in with their heroes and heroines and stories. This is a fine thing to do – normal, even.
At some point, though, you need to know that somebody’s going to come along and try to capture the magic again. There are lots of reasons to do this – money, a love of the material, a desire to surpass what has been done before, etc.. In any event, they’re going to try. No matter how good it is, too, they’re probably going to fail with somebody. To some people, Michael Jordan is always going to be better than <whoever>, no one will ever capture the scope of Dickens in any other form, and all those other teen-dramas are just knock-offs. I met a guy once and we got to talking about James Bond. He hated Daniel Craig as Bond. His favorite? Roger Moore. Why? Roger Moore was cheesier, and that was what he liked. Seriously, that was his argument.
All of us have our ideal movie playing in our heads. It’s the thing we grew up with, it’s part of who we are. We can’t expect somebody else’s little movie in their head to match our own all the time, or even most of the time. What you consider ‘getting it right’ is inherently subjective. Will you hate Ben Affleck as Batman? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not – I bet you hated the idea of Heath Ledger as the Joker, too, and that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it (or do you think Mark Hamil is the perfect Joker? Jack Nicholson? Cesar Romero?)? In any event, the whole affair is no reason to get so upset. Just don’t go see the movie. You know you’re allowed to do that, right?
In the end, the thing I really want to tell people who get up in arms over how Hollywood ruined <blank> involves two additional things: First, that it isn’t like Hollywood erased the old thing (unless you’re George Lucas, but he gave us the originals back eventually), so just go back and watch that. Second, if you don’t like how they’re telling this story, tell it yourself. Nobody is ever going to make that movie you have in your head except you.
That’s half the reason I write, after all – nobody tells stories quite the way I would, so it’s up to me to tell them myself. Of course, being a writer isn’t for everybody – I understand that. You would think, though, that with that understanding people would elicit some degree of restraint in their criticism. If anybody ever asks you ‘could you do better’ and you can’t honestly say ‘yes’ (emphasis on honestly), maybe you shouldn’t be bitching so loudly. Furthermore, if the answer is yes, then go and do it.
For my money, I’m going to wait and see what Affleck does with the role. After all, you just never know and the worst that could happen has already happened. It’s called Daredevil.
WordPress has just informed me that it’s been another year of me writing this blog o’ mine. Seeing how I don’t have anything else pressing to discuss, this anniversary is fortuitous as it gives me something to write about, if only briefly.
I have pretty consistently posted about twice a week on this blog: almost always on Monday, and then again on either Wednesday or Friday, depending. I’ve doubled the number of followers I have and views on the site have varied from several hundred to fifty. This summer it has been around fifty pretty much consistently. This puts me behind the 2011-2012 view numbers, but that’s okay. I barely promote this blog and fifty views a day is enough for me to know that somebody is reading this thing and that I can be found if someone is looking.
While I enjoy blogging, my purpose here isn’t really to blog, per se. I don’t want to be a ‘blogger’ by trade or affectation. I’m a writer, and writing a blog is a way to establish that I exist to a digital world that is barely aware of me. This is, in essence, my digital office, wherein I make small inroads into making sure my name pops up in a Google search. I’m trying not to invest too much of my time into it, since the more time I spend here, the less time I spend actually writing. Of course, as somebody who has difficulty doing things by half measures, two posts a week are my minimum standard for maintaining this thing. If I’m going to write a blog, I’m going to write a blog; it isn’t something I’ll abandon on a whim. If I intend to quit updating for a while, you’ll hear about it.
On the subject of my professional aims, this has been a pretty good year in terms of writing. As of this moment, I have four stories accepted to various publications. Some of them haven’t supplied me with contracts yet, so I hesitate lauding them, but one of them is a really big publication credit to my mind (*cough* Analog *cough*). When I have a fixed idea of when these four stories are going to be released, I’ll be certain to let you know and prod you to buy/read them.
On the novel-writing front, things go well there, too. This summer I wrote the first third of the sequel to The Oldest Trick (mostly because I love Tyvian Reldamar, and for no greater professional purpose) as well as more than half of a new novel, which is currently titled simply Lych – it’s urban fantasy, which is a bit more saleable in the current market (I hope), and I hope to finish a rough draft by the end of winter at the latest.
The two novels I have finished and am shopping around (The Rubric of All Things and The Oldest Trick) are still under consideration at Harper Voyager books following their open submission call, which is a good thing. At last check, the editors told me they were both ‘very much still under consideration’, which I am taking as a hopeful sign one of them will be picked up. The Rubric of All Things, by the way, was the one that made Quarterfinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. All good news!
Finally, on an ‘actually pays me money’ professional note, I have been promoted out of adjunct professor-hood to a full-time lecturer/faculty associate of English at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University (whew! some title – I know). I start that new position tomorrow, which is very exciting as it will be the first time in my professional life I will have an office of my own (it may even have a door!). Go me!
So, in closing – thank you all for reading, and please continue to do so. This blog has been a great way to get the creative juices flowing and to share some of my ideas with whoever wants to listen. As a writer and a teacher, I do so enjoy hearing myself talk. I am glad there are at least a few people out there who do, as well.